Looking through the cracks

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To retain or not retain — that is the question. Should we flunk our underperformers? If we do, should we hold them back? Or send them on the next grade with a hope, a prayer and — if we listen to the research — extra tutoring? Academic studies favor social promotion, usually adding the caveat that the socially promoted should receive extra tutoring when they enter the next grade. Unfortunately, that tutoring may not happen or may be wholly insufficient: Two extra hours of instruction per week cannot begin to cover the losses from years of failure and near-failure. I’m not sure 10 hours a week could hit that target, but ten hours might be plausible for quick learners.

This post is only peripherally about retention, though. I want to briefly visit another topic. So Napoleon has failed or nearly failed his classes, quite likely not for the first time. At least one possible rescue ought to go on the table immediately, one that inexplicably may not be raised for discussion.

For parents and teachers: If Napoleon failed or has been skirting failure, please consider special education. When a parent demands that a child be tested for special education, the district must comply. Absent that demand, sometimes testing never happens. For one thing, the barriers to entering special education keep getting higher. I don’t want to start addressing those issues — they’re huge — but the amount of proof required to move a student into special education may shut the process down before it starts, especially as districts keep adding responsibilities to the teaching day. My 27 days of meetings this year take a lot of time away from possible parent calls or social worker discussions.

One of my students just entered special education. Her mom had mentioned she thought the girl needed extra help and I thought so, too. I talked to special education teachers. They told me the same thing they have been telling me for the last few years: Tell the parent to insist that her child needs to be tested. The amount of documentation a teacher requires to get that ball rolling is so daunting now that I suspect only parent interventions are likely to work in some districts. She’s not my only student who I think needs help. I have one more mission before year’s end, if I can put it together in the time that’s left.

For some kids, special education may be their only chance to graduate from high school and possibly move on to higher education. My colleague down the hall has been educated and trained specifically to work with academically and behaviorally-disadvantaged students. She has classes with eight or fewer children in them and a paraprofessional to help her. She can sit down and focus on one child, providing intensive instruction, while other children work with the paraprofessional. For any kid who is struggling to pass, year after year, my colleague’s class offers a chance to succeed.

Eduhonesty: Economic forces are in play here, something teachers and parents don’t always understand. Districts have a big incentive to keep children in the regular classroom. That special education teacher costs as much or more than her regular education counterpart, probably more since special education endorsements require quite a few college credits — this varies by area — and greater numbers of college credits usually lead to higher pay. Depending on law and contracts, one regular teacher can teach the same number of students as three special education teachers. Putting a child into special education thus represents a financial commitment that poor districts, especially, may prefer to avoid.

I need to observe that educators and administrators tend to be ethical people, dedicated to providing the best education possible to their students. While an obvious financial incentive exists to keep students out of special education, parties to the process are extremely unlikely to falsify testing data. Still, financial factors may lead to data interpretations designed to keep students in regular classrooms. A few years back, I had a student tested for special education. The man who tested her determined that her I.Q. was 78 — 3 digits too high to qualify for special education. She needed a 75 to qualify. But while psychometricians generally regard IQ tests as having high statistical reliability, the fact is that the standard error of measurement for IQ tests is commonly considered to be about three points — the very difference that might have gotten my student into special education. That test can easily be three points off. They didn’t let my girl into special education. (Bilingual education saved this former student, but that’s another story. She did graduate. She may be stranded in a Spanglish world, and she can’t spell or do math for beans, but she diligently attended school, receiving enough credits to walk the stage.)

Am I rambling here? To go straight to my point, many of our failing kids will benefit from special education; however, parents and teachers may need to force the issue. Parents — don’t trust the schools to tell you if your child needs special education. If you suspect learning handicaps, demand that your district test your child. Teachers — the mantra of this time has become, “All children can succeed!” This cheery sound bite sounds appealing but fictions often do. Not all children can succeed in regular classrooms. If they could, we would never have created special education in the first place.

Lost and struggling students deserve to get the help they need. These small classes with individualized attention allow some students to learn when regular classes do not. My colleague down the hall has dedicated her life to teaching reading to students who need extra help to put the letters together. Parents and teachers sometimes hesitate to seek special education placements for fear of labeling a child slow, but special education often proves the best possible world for at least some of our boys and girls.

Leonard Cohen put it perfectly in his song, Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

It’s all about light, the light of learning. We are here to help our children learn to love learning. We do that best when we don’t force them to go faster and farther than they are ready to travel. We do that best when we hand them books they can read with a teacher who understands the pacing and parameters they require. We do that best when we accept and love them for who they are.